For company owners leaping onto the employee-empowerment bandwagon, here's a way to really walk your talk: institute reverse performance reviews, in which employees grade their bosses. The point, of course, is to help managers do their jobs better. And, notes Chris Carey, president of Datatec Industries, a maker of in-store computer systems with nearly $32 million in annual revenues, giving employees the chance to appraise their bosses forces a company to live up to its commitment to participative management.

It's easy to get it wrong, though. Carey, who five years ago started a long-range quality-improvement campaign at his Fairfield, N.J., company, says it would have been impossible to use reverse performance reviews successfully back then. Datatec needed time to create a culture that embodied its core values: honesty, openness, empowerment, and acceptance of failure. Since the company has accomplished that and other dramatic organizational changes, Carey recently implemented reverse reviews. Here's what he and David Frey, director of quality, did to make from-the-bottom-up feedback productive.

* Use employee surveys. After attending several of the forums on quality Federal Express offers, Frey adapted one of that company's in-house surveys to Datatec's purposes. The 30-question form asks each of Datatec's 318 employees to rate four areas of the company: morale, upper management, the employee's immediate manager, and the core values. Employees score their managers' skills in areas such as coaching, listening, praising, and responsiveness. Upper management is rated on its support of employees, articulation of goals, attentiveness to employee ideas, and fairness.

* Protect employee confidentiality. To encourage employees to respond openly, Carey does not require that they sign their names to the surveys. Carey gives managers a tally of the companywide responses and a similar tally of the answers given by their own subordinates.

* Use survey results to develop action plans. The survey tells managers how well they measure up in their subordinates' eyes. So managers can learn how to remedy their weaknesses, Carey asks them to conduct one-on-one reverse appraisals with subordinates.

* Create alternative routes for employees. Employees who find appraising their bosses simply too uncomfortable can choose to talk to another manager about him or her. Carey wants to make sure that problems don't get buried just because they're prickly ones.

* Use reverse reviews to complement conventional reviews. The traditional, top-down appraisal between managers and subordinates follows within a month of the reverse performance reviews. Rationale: scheduling the reviews back-to-back underscores the fact that everyone can perform better, and everyone has a chance to say how that will happen.

It takes courage to ask how you're doing, though. Carey says the overall ratings were better than he expected, but there was some bad news, too. Managers and upper management got the lowest scores. -- Ellyn E. Spragins